PBS 4-parter is compelling historical drama

Television

December 27, 1991|By Michael Hill

Those rare moments of history when personal and political lives actually intersect without the help of a scriptwriter make for rare and powerful drama. And that is what drives "Parnell and the Englishwoman," a four-part Masterpiece Theatre that begins Sunday night at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.

Charles Stewart Parnell might have been an arrogant autocrat, but to the Irish of the mid-19th century, he was their arrogant autocrat, ready, willing and able to give as good as he got in the rough and tumble of British parliamentary politics.

An Anglo-Irishman, landowner and Protestant, Parnell might have been an unlikely candidate to become a hero of the Irish. But he was appalled by the behavior of the landlords to the Irish peasantry who could barely survive under the best of conditions and were evicted from their lands, often a sentence of death, when times turned bad.

So Parnell used his seat in the House of Commons to spread the gospel of Irish home rule, uniting the Irish members of Parliament in a single party that could successfully tie up the workings of that body if their legislative demands were not favorably considered.

Parnell was virtually worshiped in Ireland, proclaimed the "uncrowned king." But into this heady environment walked Katherine O'Shea, a woman married in name only to a minor member of Parnell's Irish parliamentary party.

According to this miniseries, it was love at first sight, which is understandable in this production since Francesca Annis is playing O'Shea. According to Alistair Cooke's commentary, it took a bit longer, but when you cover 15 years in four hours, you lose a bit of foreplay.

What resulted was a drawing-room tragedy as the lengthy secret affair put one chink after another in the armor of moral rectitude that Parnell clad himself in when going into battle for Irish rights.

Parnell's love for Katherine forced him to do the opposite of what David did for Bathsheeba. He tried to ensure that her husband kept his seat in Parliament to help maintain her social standing, and to keep him busy so he would stay in his London apartment and away from the country estate they shared.

None of Parnell's supporters could stand O'Shea, depicted as a conceited twit with a taste for drink and women, and couldn't fathom why their leader treated him with favor.

This mix was volatile enough and, when money was thrown into it in the form of Katherine's huge inheritance from an aunt, it exploded in a messy divorce that dragged Parnell's decade-long affair into the headlines and eventually dragged down his crusade for Irish independence.

Trevor Eve gives a magnificent performance, playing Parnell as a man of superior intelligence who did not suffer fools gladly and who considered most everyone else a fool.

Eve's Parnell is possessed by his vision for Ireland, a fact that is both his strength --it propelled him into, and continued to fuel, his leadership -- and his weakness -- it meant he refused to heed any advice that disagreed with his own preconceptions. He is the hero who takes the classic tragic fall, but his flaws were not just a single fatal one, they were many. Indeed, his fatal mistake was falling in love, usually an admirable act.

David Robb as Katherine's husband is appropriately irritating, yet he still makes the character multi-dimensional. Annis, who was introduced to Masterpiece Theatre audiences as Lilly Langtrey in "Lilly," is her usual excellent and fetching self as Katherine.

Sunday's Part 1 plays a bit soap operatic with a lot of pregnant pauses and meaningful glances. But once the story is set up, the strength of these characters and the depth of their portrayals make for fascinating television.

"Parnell and the Englishwoman" manages to avoid the this-happened-then-that-happened approach that plagues so many historical dramas by keeping each of its four episodes a compact, thematically linked whole, allowing many events to take place off camera, some even in between episodes, with only a bit of artfully included exposition necessary to keep the audience apprised of developments.

This is a bit of a cautionary tale with messages that apply to the current political situation in Ireland -- still, a century later, plagued by terrorism -- as well as to any politician and political movement who become too identified with each other.

But in the end, it is a confirmation that today we still go by the Victorian era's 11th commandment -- "Thou shalt not get caught."

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